Finding joy at work with lean Six Sigma.

sunriseWhat if working together we could solve the toughest, most challenging, nastiest, annoying, painful, complicated problems that would lead to creating a workplace full of passion, joy, excitement, energy, reward, and lifelong friendships; where what you do each day actually made a difference in the lives around you.

Would you want to work there? 

Would you be excited to get up every morning to come to work?

I’ll bet you would! Unfortunately, many people I come in contact with tell me this is the opposite of the work environment they have to drag themselves into each day. This doesn’t surprise me one bit since Gallup’s research and my own research on employee engagement suggest only 30% of people are truly engaged in their work.

Why are so many people, essentially 7 out of 10, so uninterested in their work? For many I have talked with much of the reason for being so disengaged is that they don’t see the value in their work in how it impacts anything but the bottom line, of which they feel left out of when looking at their paychecks on payday.

It’s no wonder why so many are disengaged if they feel what they do each day makes no difference. Think about it just from a numbers perspective – if you work a typical week of 40 hours and have a lifetime career that spans 40 years that’s over 80,000 hours or 10,000 plus workdays that lead to no meaningful impact. Talk about a total waste of time and energy! Who wants to put in this kind of time and have it result in nothing?!?!

What does this have to do with lean Six Sigma? The opening paragraph to this post is part of the introduction for a book I’m finishing, and as I was writing the book one day a thought came to me regarding why we, or more specifically, why I do lean Six Sigma? What is it about lean Six Sigma, or process improvement in general, that has kept me wanting to get up every day for nearly two decades, well, most days, charged up and full of energy to teach and coach people to find a faster and better ways to do processes?

As I sought to find an answer to this question I discovered something about myself and the successful people I have helped. The discovery was that we do lean Six Sigma not for ourselves, but instead we do it for others. We do it to help others find joy in their work. We do it in love for others.

“We do lean Six Sigma to solve the toughest, most challenging, nastiest, annoying, painful, complicated problems that lead to creating a workplace full of passion, joy, excitement, energy, reward, and lifelong friendships; where what we do each day actually makes a difference in the lives around us.”

Again, we do lean Six Sigma to serve the needs of others. Our reward is in the impact using process improvement methods such as lean Six Sigma creates in helping others succeed. It’s not about us; it’s about those we help!

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Philippians 2:3

The ironic thing about putting others first is that you too will reap a reward for what you sow in them when they blossom into something far greater than they could have on their own. If you are a lean Six Sigma professional or maybe considering a career change and pursuing a role in process improvement know the potential to do truly amazing transformational work awaits you when you put the needs of others first. If you are currently a lean Six Sigma professional and don’t have the joy I write about here maybe it’s time to shift your focus from yourself and what you’re getting to those you are helping and what they are receiving.

7 Steps to making sustainment sexy.

adult-streamingOne of the least glamorous activities in process improvement is leaving behind something that will ensure the sustainment of your team’s improvements. In the world of lean Six Sigma (LSS) this is the work most commonly done in the Control phase. Never in the two decades of doing process improvement have I met someone who has told me, “I love putting control mechanisms in place like SOP’s, process flows, and control plans. I can’t wait to spend hours creating documents no one ever looks at or reads.” Leaving behind something to keep a process sustaining a high level of performance is one of the least sexy aspects to LSS. In this post I’ll share some of my experience on why this is, and what you can do to take sustainment from dull unappreciated ineffective work to high impact pinpoint focused actions.

Why there is no sex appeal to sustaining.

My earlier comments may seem sarcastic, but quite often I find that the opposite of what I described tends to be the norm in that no one wants to do the non-sexy work that is typically associated with the Control phase. There is little doubt that this work is of high value in sustaining the improvements, and arguably, sustaining improvement is the main point of any LSS project-so why is this work so hard to do when we know the value it represents?

In the years of doing and helping hundreds of people work on process improvement projects I’ve uncovered a number of reasons why sustainment work can seem about as fulfilling as digging a hole only to fill it back up and dig it again. Let’s start with a definition of the word sustain.

Sustain (suh-steyn) v. 1. to support, hold, or bear up from below; bear the weight of, as a structure. 2. to undergo, experience, or suffer (injury, loss, etc.); endure without giving way. 3. to keep (a person, the mind, etc.) from giving way, as under trial or affliction. 4. to keep up or keep going, as an action or process.

Yup, that sounds about right. Supporting, holding up, structure, suffering, enduring, to keep up or keep going-no wonder no one wants to do this stuff! While this seems a little on the extreme, it in some ways characterizes why so many avoid this type of work, which leads to my top 3 reasons why there is no sex appeal in sustainment.

Sustaining can be laborious time-consuming work.

In many ways getting results from an improvement effort is the easy part, but when it comes to keeping those great result coming the true effort begins in creating a plan and implementing it to keep the good times rolling. There is no question this is work that takes time-time away from other problems and opportunities (the “sexy” stuff). When we have a choice to focus on solving another problem or spending time putting sustainment actions in place to keep the last problem you solved from recurring we often choose the former not the latter.

Many believe sustaining requires documenting everything.

One of the reasons why sustaining can be so laborious is a belief that to keep a process performing at a high level we need to document every detail. In some ways I believe this is just how many of us process improvement experts are wired-something I’ve referred to before as “14 decimal place people“. We are great at what we do because we enjoy the details, but sometimes, many times, the details are not very important in the grand scheme of a project’s overall long term success.

Few people truly appreciate sustainment work.

This may be the biggest reason sustainment work lacks sex appeal. When was the last time a leader in your organization said something like, “Wow, what a great job you did putting together that SOP and process flow to sustain your project’s results. I really liked that section in your SOP on how to enter data correctly.” What leaders reward is what most people in an organization spend their time focused on. Behavioral expert Aubrey Daniels nails it when he says, “Behavior goes where reinforcement flows!”


7 Steps to making sustainment sexy.

The goods news is there is a way to make sustainment activity have greater sex appeal. What I describe next is a simple effective approach to consider the next time you have a project move into the Control phase. Also, keep in mind the goal in these seven steps is to do as little as possible, but yet continue the success of your initial results realized in the Improve phase.

Step 1-Identify critical-to-success actions.

As previously mentioned, far too often we as process improvement experts want to document every detail and step in a process to a microscopic level, but many would agree that not every step in a process has equal weight in achieving our end goal. Some steps are more important than others.

Think about this from a simple analogy of baking a cake. All of us know from experience that baking a cake has a number of steps. If our goal is to make a great tasting cake there are certain steps that are more important than others. For example, the shape, size, and material our pan is made of is a necessary element, but in most cases has very little to do with how great our cake tastes. On the other hand, the ingredients used in the batter and the temperature and time we bake our cake have a much larger impact on making a great tasting cake.

It is no different with the processes we are making improvement to in an organization in that some steps are going to be more critical-to-success than others. From my experience there are typically 2-3 steps that will really stand out in a process that you should focus your sustainment action toward. Sometimes it can also help by noting the critical-to-success actions on your process flow.

Step 2-Identify critical-to-success behaviors.

Once you have identified the actions (process steps) most critical to success then your attention needs to turn to the behaviors of the people doing those actions. Four questions I suggest asking will help you determine if you have gaps between your desired condition and the current condition as it relates to the likelihood of sustaining the improved performance. These questions include:

  1. Do the people performing the actions know what to do?
  2. Do the people performing the actions know how to do it?
  3. Can the people performing the actions actually do it?
  4. Do the people performing the actions want to do it?

Just because you have created a great process doesn’t mean people will do it. These four simple questions will determine if you need to do anything to sustain the effort. In some rare cases you may have all of these questions covered and there is no gap and you can move on to step five, but from my experience there is generally some gap to fill. To dive deeper into these questions check our my previous posts (post 1, post 2).

Step 3-Develop sustainment plan to fill gaps.

This is usually the step that many of us 14 decimal place folks can get carried away and make this process turn into 22 SOP’s, 12 job-aids, 5 training workshops, etc. A modification of a popular acronym (KISS) comes to mind here, but instead of Keep It Simple Stupid I suggest Keep It Sexy to Sustain. Sexy means less, and less often leads to more.

There’s no magic in creating a sustainment plan. The typical what, by who, and by when work fine here. Dig into your LSS toolbox and look for the best tools, methods, etc. to help sustain, but keep in light and start with the minimum needed.

Step 4-Implement sustainment plan.

Implementing is doing and doing it fast! You’ve found some success in the Improve phase with the solutions your team has implemented, and likely you have some momentum going. Capitalize on that momentum by implementing in less than 30 days.

The 30 day window will also ensure a lower degree of complexity is involved. You have to work hard to create something overly complicated that can be done well in less than a month. This can also be a time when your team quits meeting, but instead of slowing the frequency of team sessions I suggest increasing them, but making them shorter “stand up” style sessions focused on brief progress reports and quick action to address road blocks. This is also a great time to get your champion engaged and leverage him or her to provide the positive reinforcement to add some sex appeal to the work-in-progress.

Step 5-Evaluate sustainment plan results.

The big question at this point in the process is-are the actions working? Are people actually doing what they’re supposed to do. A simple “yes/no” evaluation for the actions and behaviors identified in steps one and two work best for evaluating your sustainment plan.

I also suggest taking what Mike McCarthy describes in Sustain Your Gains as “thick-to-thin” evaluations. Change can be difficult for most people, and sustainment is generally about learning new behaviors and eventually making them habits.

After sustainment actions have been implemented more frequent reviews are needed to determine if the actions and behaviors are being done consistently. The evaluations create a great opportunity to praise great work and provide constructive feedback where improvement needs to take place. As time progresses the frequency of evaluations decrease as the new way becomes habit.

A simple analogy I use to illustrate this is brushing your teeth. Chances are your mom and / or dad helped you when you were younger, and every day watched and helped you brush your teeth. Eventually brushing your teeth twice a day became a habit and hopefully this morning your mother didn’t have to call and remind you to brush! In some ways it’s no different with processes inside our organizations in that we need mom and dad (i.e. coworkers, managers, etc.) to guide, coach, evaluate, correct, and praise us that eventually leads to forming a new habit that requires very little conscious effort.

Step 6-Make adjustments as needed.

In a perfect world everything goes according to plan, but my guess is you are not working in a perfect world otherwise we process improvement experts would have little work to do. So when, not if, your plan does not go exactly as expected making adjustments before things get out of hand is important.

What I’ve discovered is a few things could go wrong. First, you may find that people are doing what they should be doing (i.e. high percentage of positive evaluations), but the results are not being sustained. In this case your team needs to reevaluate the actions identified in step one. In other words, it is likely a process problem and you may have identified the wrong steps.

A second, and more common, failure mode is people don’t do what they’re supposed to do and you have low evaluation scores to prove it. In this case a greater focus on the four questions noted in step two need to be evaluated. Reevaluate your answers to the four questions and discover which is lacking.

This is often when question four comes into play in that people don’t want to do what they’re supposed to do. The key to success here comes from making sure you have properly identified the true consequence provider (the individual who has the ability to reward and punish those doing the actions) and they are providing the right incentives for desired behavior and punishment for bad behavior.

Know that there is only so much your team can do when it relates to behavioral performance. True power in influencing the behavior of others usually starts with their direct supervisor, not a LSS team. This can also be a great reason to ensure those likely to be affected by the changes are involved in the change process (i.e. team members) from the beginning.

Step 7-Celebrate and elevate every chance you get!

The final step is definitely the sexiest and in many respects is not the “last” step, but a step that should be taking place throughout the aforementioned process. I look at this from both a macro and micro perspective.

From a macro perspective you need to celebrate success by rewarding and recognizing the groups of people involved in the effort. On a micro level you need to focus on individuals and elevate them to get more of the great performance they have demonstrated. These are the two behavioral “levers” you and your team can “pull” to get more positive results.

I suggest focusing more on the elevate lever because pulling it will typically yield greater results. Think of it this way. Imagine being in a big open space (i.e conference room, training center) with all of your coworkers and hearing one of the top leaders say something like, “I want to recognize the great efforts by the team that helped us reduce cycle time in our financial reporting process by 25%.” Now compare that to standing face-to-face with that same leader who says, “Scott, I want to personally thank you for leading the team who reduced the cycle time of the financial reporting process by 25%.” Which of those two scenarios would make you feel more appreciated? I thought so.


Get to work!

What I’ve described in this post seems easy enough, but it takes passion and desire to make it happen. If you’ve read this far and your heart has raced a bit as you’ve read you’re probably going to succeed, and take the steps I’ve outlined here on your next project. In fact, I challenge you to do so and compare your results to other projects not using this approach.

Don’t just look at the results of both projects, look at the faces of those whose work lives you and your team have impacted. Are they smiling more? Do they have a little extra “zip” in their step after you’ve put the sustainment plan in place and reaped the benefits?

I’ve made this a little corny with the “sexy” theme, but what really matters is not so much the sex appeal-what matters most is heart appeal. When you touch the heart of people sustainment is easy. Notice I didn’t say your heart, but the heart of those you are helping. That’s what sustainment is all about-them, not you.

People + Process = High Performance

Over the last few years I’ve had somewhat of an awakening or discovery that high performance is not just about great processes. High performance, I would argue, especially in the transactional world, centers more on people. Unfortunately, most lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals like myself have been taught from a single drawer of tools (i.e. stats, graphs, charts, etc.) when high performance requires in many cases opening a second drawer focused on people. In this post I will share a simple perspective that may help you determine which of these drawers you need to pull tools from to get to the performance you seek.

All organizations whether they are for-profit, non-profit, private or public sector, government, etc. run on two things-people and processes. People are required to deliver a product or service to customers or citizens, and processes are required to create the product or service. You can’t do one without the other.

The 4 “Can-Do’s”.

When starting an improvement effort you need to determine-is this more of a people problem or a process problem? From my experience you will likely have a little of both, but generally one is greater than the other, and that may be an initial indication which drawer you will need to pull from more to attain higher performance. Four simple questions to begin with that may indicate the problem is more of a people issue are:

  1. Do they know what to do?
  2. Do they know how to do it?
  3. Can they do it?
  4. Do they want to do it?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no” you may want to start by addressing the people issues rather than turning the problem into a LSS project that may not address the true issue. For example, when I was in high school I worked a coop job during my junior and senior years in a warehouse that supplied woodworking professionals supplies like saw blades, drill bits, etc. My job was to fill orders and prepare them for shipment to customers. I was working in this job for three months and feeling like I was doing a great job because I wasn’t hearing otherwise, but when my teacher came to meet with the company owner for my first semester evaluation he told my teacher I was going to be fired if I didn’t stop making so many mistakes!

Here I thought I was doing such a great job, but was on the verge of being fired! When my teacher gave me the news I clearly knew I had some improving to do. My boss failed to address the first three questions from above, but once I was given clear direction and expectations were set I made very few errors from that point on. In fact, I worked for the company for several years after high school while in college. What a change one simple conversation and setting clear expectations and direction did for my performance!

Looking at this scenario from purely a process standpoint, the former me (process focused LSS MBB) would have said this is a great LSS project opportunity! I would have put together a project charter defining the problem, metric, goal, and business case and created a team to start collecting data to track the baseline percentage of orders filled correctly, and before long I would have been knee deep in statistical analysis when all that was needed to improve performance would have been a simple…”Hey Scott, you’re making a lot of mistakes filling orders, here’s a simple way to fill orders and make fewer mistakes. Try this and lets see how well it works for you.”

Looking past the obvious.

What I’ve discovered is we as LSS professionals often look past the obvious at the start of an investigation related to performance issues. We see problems only from a process perspective because that is what we are traditionally trained to do. In many ways we are blind to the people issues that may be the true root cause of the problem.

Another way of looking at the problem is to determine which quadrant the issues resides in. Below is an illustration to help visualize what I am describing. The worst case scenario is the bottom left quadrant where the process is out of control and the people working in it are not engaged in their work. My advice in this scenario is to run…run as fast as you can to avoid the fallout from the imminent explosion!

Seriously, you face a challenge that can be overcome, and in all cases I would start with addressing people issues first because it’s difficult to address process issues without good people involved, then move on to the process, but in many cases if this has been going on for a long time the end is probably near and maybe running is a good option.

A second possibility illustrated in the lower right quadrant is that you have good processes but disengaged employees. The aforementioned four questions are a good starting point to address the people issues found here.

A third scenario is engaged employees, but bad processes as illustrated in the upper left quadrant. This situation is ripe for LSS tools to help analyze the process for deficiencies that are leading to waste and defects.

A final possibility is the ideal one that is located in the upper right quadrant, which also leads to how best to determine which quadrant you are in. One simple way to determine which of these quadrants you are in is to talk with customers and employees. Are customers happy with the product or service being provided? Do employees enjoy their work and find it engaging? The answers to these questions will determine the quadrant you are in, and also which of the toolbox drawers you will need to pull from to find a path to the upper right quadrant.

Is your heart in it?

What I’ve learned over the last few years is that the most important element to high performance is having a heart focused on helping others thrive and flourish at what they love to do. In fact, that’s my personal mission statement I use to describe to others what I do. No amount of knowledge, training, education, or experienced can replace a heart for improvement. So consider the first step in achieving high performance by evaluating what’s in your heart, then move on to determining if you have a people issue or a process issue, and finally get to work on using the right tools to achieve higher performance!

Redefining what it means to have a “great” idea.

brainstormingOne of my favorite tools to utilize when selecting potential improvement ideas is the impact – effort grid. This tool is a simple, yet effective, approach for identifying solution ideas that have a high impact and require a low effort. For years my clients and I have used this tool with success, but occasionally the ideas that come from using this tool don’t work as planned. One of the reasons I believe this happens is because the tool fails to address one of the biggest challenges to making improvements stick – people!

The grid focuses solely on the idea from just a problem perspective. How big an impact will the solution have in solving the problem and achieving the goal? How much effort will it take to implement the solution? Both are great questions and will lead to a potential solution, but what is not evaluated are the people implementing the solution and those who will be living with it.

I propose a new dimension needs to be added to the impact – effort grid that includes passion and resistance. A great solution, one that will be sustainable in keeping the problem from recurring, is not simply one that has high impact and low effort, but one that also has high passion from those implementing the solution, and low resistance from those who will be affected by the solution.

A new twist on an old tool.

To refresh on the impact – effort grid, the process begins with a short list of causes to a problem that have been validated as legitimately causing the problem a team wants to solve. This process usually includes some type of quantitative analysis (i.e. correlation, regression, etc.) and / or qualitative analysis (i.e. observation, interviews, surveys, etc.). With a short list of valid causes, a team comes together to work through each cause one-at-a-time by brainstorming potential solutions to keep the cause from recurring.

I suggest setting a scale (i.e. high , medium, low; 1-5; high/low) for the impact of the solution in relation to how it will affect the goal, and using time as a way of establishing the effort required to implement the solution. Illustrated below is a simple grid that can be drawn on a white board or large piece of paper to get started.

The next step is brainstorming solution ideas. I suggest doing a silent brainstorm to begin the process. Over the course of several months I conducted a study to compare group brainstorming and individual brainstorming and found when starting with individual brainstorming ten times more ideas were developed in comparison with brainstorming as a group.  Start first with individual brainstorming and then move on to group brainstorming to come up with a greater number of ideas to evaluate.

Once all ideas have been brainstormed the next step is to place them in the appropriate quadrant on the grid. I suggest letting the person who came up with the idea make the initial placement, and if team members highly disagree with the location then have a discussion to determine where it best fits. To save time you should also have anyone who has a similar idea to the one being placed on the grid place it on top of the similar idea to eliminate the need to evaluate two or more similar ideas. When you are complete with this step your grid will look similar to the one illustrated below.

This is where a typical impact – effort grid would move on to selecting the ideas from the green quadrants as those to review and select in fixing the problem, but what is missing from this equation is the people side of improvement.  People will be needed to implement the idea and people will be asked to accept the idea.  Without evaluating these two elements I would argue a valid idea that has a high impact and requires low effort may not be the best solution.

A new perspective to evaluate the ideas in the green quadrants in relation to people is the final step in this new approach that uses a similar process in evaluating not impact and effort, but passion and resistance.

With just the ideas from the green impact – effort quadrants the team will finish the process by evaluating the ideas in relation to how much passion those who are implementing the idea have for doing so, and the measure of resistance those having to live with the idea have toward using the idea in the process they work within.  Just as before, the post-its can be transferred from the green quadrants on the impact – effort grid and placed in the appropriate grid on the passion – resistance grid as illustrated below.

The final result are ideas that have a high impact on keeping the cause from recurring, and require a low effort in relation to the time to implement in combination with high passion by those who will implement the idea, and a low resistance from those who will have to accept and live with the idea in the process they work within.  This, I would argue, is the true definition of a “great” idea!

Break out a six pack to find your next LSS project!

800w-cans-fuzzy-drinks-largeThe perfect organization does not exists anywhere in the world.  This is a good and bad thing.  It is good because people like you and I who are passionate about making organizations work better have no shortage of problems to solve.  However, the problems create frustrating environments to work in that leads to disengagement and turnover in addition to dissatisfied customers who, given an option, will find what they want somewhere else.

Knowing this, and after coaching several hundred process improvement experts over the past few years, I still run into a recurring problem in which the people I coach (freshly trained LSS green and black belts) struggle to find projects to apply their newly trained skills to.  You would think that with all the problems most organizations face they would have piles of project opportunities to get after, but that just isn’t the case in most businesses.

Nobody likes piling up their problems, especially out in the open where everyone can see them.  They tend to be hidden deep in the organization, but the good news is that I have uncovered a few “secret” places to look that almost always turn up golden nuggets to make processes run more efficient with higher quality that lead to lower costs and higher profit margins.

I call these hidden locations the “six pack of opportunities”.  Let’s break open this six pack and look at each area, but first a few words of advice on how to approach finding your next opportunity.

Keep it simple.  Serve instead of being served.

Whatever you do never walk into a manager’s office and say something like, “I just went to training and need to find a lean Six Sigma project.  Can you help me with that?”

There are two big problems with this approach.  First and foremost is that your perspective has to be one of a servant.  Your goal is to serve someone else who is in need; not to be served by someone who can simply hand you a project.  Process improvement is never about you or what you will get from the effort.  Process improvement is completely about how you can use your passion to help others.

If you have an attitude of “what’s in it for me” you will not succeed in this profession that is all about serving others.  If you want to be served go to a Denny’s and order a Grand Slam.  If you want to help others get better at what they love to do and make a real difference, focus on the needs of others, and not on what you will get from the situation.

Second, you should never bring up the words lean, Six Sigma, process improvement, kaizen, or any other confusing Japanese or statistical terms or worse yet, acronyms like DOE, SPC, LSS, etc.  This will immediately turn on a filter, a faulty filter in most cases, that whoever you are talking with will use to run their problems and project ideas through that will lead to nowhere.  You are there to simply understand the challenges, frustrations, head aches, etc. the person you are talking with is currently experiencing.  Using simple language to get all these problems out is where you should start.  Business leaders could care less about specific process improvement methodologies like lean Six Sigma.  What they care about and get measured on is business performance.  Focus on the what (i.e. problems, issues, challenges, etc.) not the how (i.e. LSS).

Break open a six pack and get busy looking for opportunities.

Nearly all great LSS projects come from one of six areas.  Each of the following represent opportunities to apply the LSS methodology to help organizational leaders succeed.  The key is finding an opportunity that they have passion for that leads to improved performance.

Six places to look for projects include:

  1. Business Plans / Strategic Goals
  2. Team Goals
  3. Budget
  4. Metrics
  5. Personal goals / performance plans
  6. Pain points

Focus on the heart.

I find that starting with number six in this list is where you will find opportunities closest to the heart of the leader.  The further up the list you move the farther from their heart you get, and the less passionate they are about the issue.  Have you ever met a leader that got excited about strategic plans?  I’ve never met one, but I have met several leaders who could tell me about their pain points for hours on end!

The top five focus areas are pretty straightforward in finding project opportunities.  One simple tip I will give you is to look for some keywords such as “minimize”, “reduce”, “maximize”, “increase”, and “streamline”.  Each of these words typically points to an existing process that can be measured, two key elements to a good LSS project.

Where I suggest starting is with the pain points of a leader instead of the other five areas.  In some ways when you are just getting started with LSS you are also doing some promotion and marketing for the LSS process.  If you pay attention to any type of advertisement these days you will notice most selling is based on tapping into emotions and not on the data making a solid case to buy whatever is being promoted.

In some ways it is the same with LSS.  You need to tap into the emotions of a leader to find their pain points, and once you do and help them eliminate them you will begin to build their trust and open doors to projects in the other five areas.

To find a person’s pain points is no different than going to the doctor.  You need to first ask “What’s hurting you?” in order to make a diagnosis and take the first step in reducing / eliminating the pain.  You could simply begin with this exact questions, but some better ways to ask it are:

  1. What’s keeping you up at night?
  2. What work-related things do you think about when you’re not at work?
  3. In the last month what problem just doesn’t seem to go away that you wish would?

These are all simple starter questions that begin to develop a conversation that will lead to making a diagnosis on what is causing their pain. From their answers to these questions you will be able to start determining how or if LSS can help alleviate the pain. When you find a pain LSS can help with and reduce it you will begin to build a bridge of trust between the leader and yourself that will lead to bigger and more impactful projects. Be patient and focus on serving, and the reward for doing so will come in time.

Don’t waste the power of your tongue!

power-of-the-tongue-cIn the world we process improvement experts live in, specifically when our focus is on “leaning” processes, we spend a large portion of our time helping people remove waste to achieve the goals of doing what they do better and faster.  When we do so the costs typically decrease and the profits go up.  In a way it’s how we justify our existence, and why we are worth the money we get paid to do what we do.

Taking a look at our personal lives from a lean perspective, there is a lot of waste that, when removed, leads to a better life.  Most of this waste comes from what we say.  The tongue has the power to provide value and / or waste to yourself and others.  The great thing is you can decide to control your tongue if you want to.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.  Proverbs 18:21

I recently read a book called The Forty-Day Word Fast by Tim Cameron that takes readers on a 40 day journey to remove toxic words from your vocabulary.  In a way this 40 day word fast is an exercise in leaning the waste coming from our tongues.  Similar to removing the eight forms of waste from a process, Cameron identifies six forms of verbal waste he guides readers through to remove from their lives.  The six forms of verbal waste include:

  1. Judgement
  2. Criticism
  3. Sarcasm
  4. Negativity
  5. Complaining
  6. Gossip

I took the 40 day journey and it was incredibly difficult to eliminate these six wastes from coming out of my mouth, but what may have been more important to this first of many “fasts” to come is that for the first time in my life I realized just how much these six wastes consume my verbiage both orally and written.

In some ways the 40 day journey was a starting point, or baseline if you want to look at it from a process improvement perspective, to measure future progress against.  The bad news is I have a lot of work to do to improve; the good news is I can only go up from the low point I’m currently at!

What I realized is that when I spent a lot of time speaking the six wastes my view of the world and those around me plummeted.  I was in a foul mood; always focused on the negative; and just ticked off at the world for being so messed up.  I was a hard person, and still am on occasion, to be around when these words and thoughts were consuming me.

Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.
Proverbs 21:23

My point in writing this post is that in the world we live and work in it is easy to find yourself being consumed by these six wastes that lead to nowhere, but a depressed state of mind.  What would this world be like if there were no judgement, criticism, sarcasm, negativity, complaining, or gossip.  Think about that for a minute.

My challenge to you is to help create that world one tongue at a time.  Instead of working on all six wastes at the same time, which is incredibly difficult to do as I found out, pick one each of the next six months and focus on reducing that verbal waste, and hopefully over the course of six months you’ll see, and probably more important, those around you will see and hear, a change in what you speak.

Are you a 14 decimal place person?

math problemHave you ever been in a meeting, training class, webinar, etc. and noticed a bullet point out of place?  How about when you’ve been reading an email and noticed a change in font size from 12 to 10 that probably wasn’t intended by the author.   Now the big question….did either of these bother you?  If so, you might be what I call a 14 decimal place person – someone who really loves details, complexity, and strives for perfection in everything they do.

I admit I’m one of these people, and chances are if you work in the field of process improvement like me you’re probably one too.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; paying attention to details is a good thing to some degree.  Where being a 14 decimal place person, I would argue, creates a challenge is helping others see the value in process improvement, specifically in using lean Six Sigma (LSS), to solve tough business problems that matter to achieving key organizational objectives.

A question I ask quite frequently is why LSS, or just process improvement in general, has not become a central focus for most organizations?  Think about it-every organization of all types in all industries all around the world have processes, and none of them is perfect; they all need some improvement.

So what is keeping business leaders in these organizations from engaging in getting better at what they do each and every day?  One of the reasons, I believe, are the people pimping approaches, philosophies, methods, however you want to classify LSS; the 14 decimal place perfectionist like myself-we are the problem!

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, this is the kind of people who are naturally attracted to LSS.  We like the complexity and detailed focus that comes with LSS.  However, I would argue, we are in the minority in most organizations.  To say it more candidly – we’re a bit “odd”, not quite “normal”, maybe even “awkward” to some degree, and certainly “outliers” if you look at it from a people data perspective.

Maybe the reason most people in many organizations have yet to embrace process improvement is because of the people leading these efforts, or in my world of consulting, trying to convince business leaders they need to hire people like myself to help them get better at what they do.  So what can we do about it?  What are we 14 decimal place type people to do in order to get others, specifically senior leaders, more interested in process improvement?

Rounding off.

When working a math problem sometimes we need to be precise, but most of the time in business we have little use for 14 decimal places, and can simply round off to get close enough.  This is probably the first challenge 14 decimal place people need to get over-striving for perfection in everything we do.

I’m not saying we have to give up on seeking perfection; that’s still the ultimate goal.  What I am saying is that we have to shift our focus from perfection, or 14 decimal places, to just getting better than we were yesterday.  I believe it’s really that simple.  We just need to focus on getting better, not perfect.

I know this is incredibly hard to do.  You see that “bullet point” out of place and it just bothers you, but does it really matter?  I often have to stop myself when I encounter these types of situations and ask questions such as, will this help who I’m working with get better at what they do?  Do they really need to know about this in order to take one step forward and / or accomplish the goal they have set?  Will NOT knowing this cause them harm?

The answer to most of these questions most of the time is no, but keeping my mouth shut can be an incredible challenge.  I see an opportunity that I think will help, but in the end it may just lead to over complicating the process and push people further away from process improvement methodologies like LSS.  I find that if I ask myself to THINK before I speak often I find keeping my mouth shut is easier.

Before speaking ask yourself is what I’m about to say:

  1. True?
  2. Helpful?
  3. Inspiring?
  4. Something they Need to know?
  5. Kind?

If the answer is “no” then it’s best to keep your mouth shut.  You won’t be helping if you don’t THINK before you speak.  You also have to slow down for this to work because our mouth tends to get ahead of our brain much of the time.  I’ll leave you with some wise words from Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.”  Your tongue has power so use it wisely!

Finding the money piles hidden in your business.

0622_money_630x420You may not know this, but there are piles of money hidden all over your business.  One of my favorite parts of doing what I do with business owners and leaders is helping them find the hidden money piles scattered all around their organizations.  Every business has them.

The challenge is finding where they’re hidden, and then doing something about it.  In this post I’ll share some insight into where to look for the piles.

Let the hunt begin!

Half the battle in getting better is determining where to focus.  If you don’t know where to look it’s hard to improve.  Fortunately, the money piles are not all that hard to uncover once you know where to search for them.

The first place to find the money is your budget.  Where you spend the most is often where you have the most opportunity to save.  If your organization is like most, your top budget item is people.  My advice is to stay away from that line item (getting better is not usually about laying people off) and move on to other line items that will typically focus on operating expenses.  What do you spend the most on?  Who do you spend the most with?  These are a few questions to use as you begin to uncover opportunities to save.

A second pile of money can be found in your metrics, you know, those numbers you use to measure the performance of your business’ key processes.  A simple way of finding the cash here is to focus on where you have gaps between where you want to be and where you currently are.  Those gaps tend to be filled with cash.

A third stack is about as close to your desk as you can get, which is documented in your team’s goals and your own personal goals.  These dollars are the ones closest to your heart so they will most likely bring out a passion for improvement unlike the other stacks of cash.  What are you and your team working on that is important to the overall goals of the business?  What are you most passionate about fixing?  What tugs at your heart and mind when you’re not at work?  These are all questions that may lead to some of the most meaningful opportunities to get better at what you do.

A final stack of cash that may not be the biggest, but is certainly the most annoying (assuming piles of cash could annoy anyone:-)) are those nagging issues that seem to come up every day that may not be the biggest challenges, but just don’t go away, and have to be dealt with just to keep the business operating.  These “pain points” can be small stacks of cash that could be viewed as those getting in the way of the bigger stacks you’d like to scoop up, but don’t have the time to get after.  These could be quality issues with incoming product, invoicing problems with customers, vendor on-time deliveries, paperwork issues (i.e. forms), etc.  They’re small issues that can’t be ignored, and they take time away from the important stuff you’d like to be working on.

Get in attack mode today!

One quick way to start attacking these potential stacks of cash is to spend the next four weeks sniffing out each of the stacks.  This is a good Friday kind of thing that my clients like to use to finish off their weeks on a high note by finding a stack of cash to get after.

Fridays in most organizations tend to be a little laid back so this is a great “casual” exercise you can spend Friday afternoons hunting and then sorting through the opportunities to determine what to attack starting Monday.  Focus on one stack each Friday and by the end of the four weeks you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get after, and in no time you’ll be counting the money that was once hidden.

Quit wasting your time helping people who don’t want your help!

crying at workOne of the greatest frustrations when leading a lean Six Sigma (LSS) project team is working with people who just don’t care much about the problem.  I see this challenge with my clients all the time.

They setup a meeting with a potential champion to discuss a problem that could be an impactful LSS project only to have the meeting request denied, rescheduled, or with no response at all.  Weeks go by as they try to find time on the champion’s calendar, but nothing happens.  They wonder, “Why won’t this person I’m trying to help take my offer to help them?!?!”

Then, after multiple attempts, they finally “push” the champion into starting the project.  This only leads to a frustrating number of months working the DMAIC process and finding the champion does little to sustain the effort.  In the end the process goes right back where it started!  Ugh!

In this post I’d like to share some advice on how to make sure you don’t end up in this situation on your next project.  Determining the potential success of a project comes down to three P’s that include:

  1. The “right” People…
  2. with a Passion…
  3. to solve a Problem worth fixing.

After close to two decades working in various organizations I’ve never found long term success where any of the 3P’s was missing.  You need all three to be successful over the long term.

Lean Six Sigma would be easy if it didn’t require people!

Let’s start with the first P – People.  This is somewhat of a no-brainer in that it takes people to make a project successful, but what / who are the right people?  There are the obvious people you need, for example, the subject matter experts in the area you are working and those with the technical skills that will be required to use the LSS process, but more importantly you need people with the second P – Passion!

These people, from my experience, are rare jewels in most organizations.  The employee engagement numbers Gallup reports are evidence that most people don’t care much about their jobs.  They tend to have an attitude of doing the minimum and simply work for the weekend.  However, there are those few individuals that always seem to have a positive attitude and are always looking for a better way; a way to provide greater value to the organization.

This can be a challenge in some organizations, but I’d suggest instead of starting with a problem and then finding people to work with you to solve the problem, focus on finding people with passion for improvement and they will have plenty of problems to work on.

You’ll know you’ve found them because they won’t refer to their problems as “problems”, but instead they’ll call them opportunities.  You’ll also recognize them because they will be smiling when they talk about the opportunities, and they’ll likely reach out to you to get started instead of you pushing them to do so.

Finding a problem worth messing with.

What is a problem that’s worth fixing?  The simple answer is that a business case can be made if we fix the problem it will lead to a positive financial impact (i.e. revenue increase, cost reduction, etc.).  I would argue when answering this question we need to dig a little deeper than simply ensuring the problem will have a financial impact, but will also have a positive effect on achieving the goals of the business (i.e. strategic plan, tactical plan, departmental goals, gaps in KPI’s, etc.).

Not every problem is worth messing with.  Ask the question, “How will fixing this problem help the organization take one step forward in achieving the key goals identified by our leadership team?”  Your answer will determine if the problem is worth fixing.

I often tell my clients the most important aspect of a successful LSS initiative in any organization starts with working on the right stuff; the stuff leadership cares about; the stuff leadership gets measured on; the stuff leadership gets rewarded on.  Work on that stuff and succeed, and your leadership team will be asking for more!

There’s no question this process is a huge challenge, and from my experience most don’t succeed at it.  They start the process, usually with the wrong elements like training everyone.  Training is important, but has almost nothing to do with LSS success.  What is important is what you’re working on and the people doing the work.  Pick the right people with a passion to get better, and the problems worth messing with will come to the surface.

The simple infographic below is a great checklist to get started with any LSS project.  You’ll notice that people are the “bookends” that hold your project together in the middle.  Nail down these six things BEFORE you start your next project and you’re more likely to succeed!

This type of work is one of the things I’m most passionate about helping clients with.  Could you use some help?  I’m here for you along with 30+ VRI lean Six Sigma experts located all around the world.  Contact us to help you succeed!

Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies

I’m what you could call a “political junkie”.  I love watching and reading the latest political news, especially around election time when things get heated up between the contenders.  While I typically look at politicians more as entertainers these days, they do offer up some things that we as lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals can learn from to actually get things done, something they can’t seem to do.  One concept is what I call “shaking hands and kissing babies”.

Less talking more doing.

A few years ago I spent several months coaching a black belt who had a passion for LSS, well, sort of.  For months we spent hours each day talking about LSS.  We explored our thoughts and experiences on deployment, training, software, statistics, etc., but after months of talk he had progressed no further with taking action to turn his knowledge and passion for improvement into results (he would make a great politician).

Then, on my last week working with him, in walked a new black belt just hired and starting her first day on the job.  After some brief introductions, she left us and didn’t return until the end of the day.  I wondered what she’d been up to all day, and when I asked her she said she had been out walking around the offices and talking with people.  She talked with them about their problems, how she could serve them in getting better at what they do, and where LSS might add value to solving some of their big challenges.

Much like a politician seeking your vote, she was mingling with her constituents trying to understand their problems, and how she might help to alleviate some of the challenges they faced each day.  From this my political mind shaped the “shaking hands and kissing babies” analogy to finding people to help through LSS.

What follows is how we can learn from this black belt, and to some degree, politicians working to get your vote.

1. Seek to serve instead of being served.

Way too often we focus on what we’re getting out of the process.  We typically have our sights set on a promotion, job title, more money, corner office, etc., but I would argue that if your primary focus is on how you will benefit from helping others you won’t succeed over the long term.  If you truly want to help others they become priority one and you come second.

You can accomplish anything in life as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit.
-Harry Truman

2. Listen more talk less.

Think about someone you know who truly cares about you.  Do they spend all the time you’re together talking to you?  Do you have a hard time getting in a word during your conversations with them?  I doubt it.

People who care about you spend more time listening to you than talking to you.  The same can be said for those you are trying to help with LSS.  Like the black belt I mentioned earlier, spend more time listening to people and they will begin to see that your focus is on helping them not yourself.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.

3. Focus on what matters most.

This is where politicians could use some help!  If you try to fix all the problems you’re not likely to fix any of the problems, and not every problem is worth solving.  You have a finite amount of time in your work day, and what I’ve found is the best people I’ve worked with (those who get the right things done effectively) are those who manage their time well.

To manage your time well you need to have crystal clear focus on the vital few things that matter most to success (i.e. Pareto Principle).  This starts with defining what “success” means to those you are trying to help.  Why do they exists?  How do they add value to the business?  What is keeping them from doing what they do best?  These are all questions to ask in determining what matters most to their success and how LSS may help.

…if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.
-Greg McKeown

4. Know that you can’t do it all.

This is a lesson most politicians will never get, but you as a LSS professional can make a lot of progress by starting with the basis that you can’t do everything for everyone.  Principle number three feeds into this one in that if you focus on what matters most you will take a big step forward in working on the important stuff, but sometimes what matters most is an overwhelming amount of work that you will need some help in accomplishing.

Where there is passion for improvement you will succeed, so I suggest finding those who want to improve first because they will take part in driving the success and not simply come along for the ride.  To some degree process improvement is about finding people with a passion to get better first, and then determining where and how to get better.

You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.
-Steve Jobs

Get out of your office!

Not long ago I heard from the two black belts I wrote about earlier.  The guy who never left his office no longer works for the company, and the black belt who was out shaking hands and kissing babies was promoted.  To succeed you have to get out and find the opportunities to use your talent as a LSS professional to help others.

It’s a rare organization in which people will come to you with their problems, but as you begin to show others you are there to serve them and not yourself, spend time to listen to their problems and challenges, focus on what matters most to success, and tap into the passion of others who want to get better at what they do you will succeed!